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Nittany Lions set for run at NCAA team title

UNIVERSITY PARK — Nobody knows the recipe for Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken, how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop or the secret to the Penn State wrestling team’s NCAA tournament success, not even its wrestlers.

It’s no secret, however, that Cael Sanderson and his staff consistently coax the best performances out of their wrestlers when it matters most.

“It’s really reassuring and it’s funny you say that because he talked to us about that in practice. He was like, ‘you know, we’re known for peaking in this tournament, so even the guys that we’re wrestling, they know that Penn State guys are known for peaking at this tournament,'” Nittany Lion 184-pounder Aaron Brooks said on a pre-NCAA Championship Zoom conference late last week.

“It’s an advantage seeing in the past that the trust in the coaches has worked during this time. I think you just have to really put your faith in it and know that you’re ready, and let it fly. It’s our coaches, the things they have us do. They’re the geniuses behind the master plan. I can’t say I know what it is, but we trust in them, we follow the schedule and it works out.”

Brooks and eight of his teammates — Robbie Howard (125 pounds), Roman Bravo-Young (133), Nick Lee (141), Brady Berge (157), Joe Lee (165), Carter Starocci (174), Michael Beard (197) and Greg Kerkvliet (285) — are counting on that postseason magic.

They all start their individual and team hunts for a fifth consecutive national championship, and ninth in the past 10 contested tournaments today. The first of three days competition gets underway at 11 a.m. at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis.

An, at times, sub-par performance at the 2021 Big Ten Championships relegated Penn State to second place behind Iowa. Many people think the outcome could be the same in St. Louis.

Sanderson, though, seemed to indicate that even a team that features six freshmen will peak, as his teams have always done, over the next three days.

“I think confidence levels, regardless of the outcome, jump,” Sanderson said on a pre-NCAA Zoom conference last week. “I feel like we had a great experience at the Big Ten. Kind of got our butts kicked a little bit, but still kind of showed that if we get a takedown here, finish this or do that then we’re close.”

While all of the Nittany Lions can leverage the lessons they learned from another brutal Big Ten tournament, Brooks has an added takeaway. He said his comeback win over Iowa’s Nelson Brands, during which he injured his ankle, taught him something about himself.

“It’s a great advantage whenever you are able to bounce back from something mid match or deal with adversity in a tournament. I just think it shows you kind of how much heart and showed me how much heart I truly have,” he said.

“Because you know we have those negative thoughts before a match. I’m like ‘man, my ankle, I really can’t move this way.’ But to go out there and still perform and to get the job done, it just lets you know, ‘hey, I can still do this with adversity.’ So, when adversity comes in the future, it’s like, ‘I’ve done this before. And let’s just keep this positive mindset and we’ll get it done.'”

So, with the knowledge that their training will produce peak performance, the Nittany Lions will take the mats full of confidence.

“Like I said, we’re always the ones who are looked at even though Iowa might have won Big Tens,” Brooks said. “People know from past experience that this is a tournament that our guys take huge success in, so I’d say it’s about the same as every year.”

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